Some of you know that I sometimes co-produce web series "on the side." I worked on Prom Queen: Summer Heat for Michael Eisner's web company, Vuguru; I shot a pilot for a Party Down-esque web comedy about conventioneer workers that unfortunately never went anywhere; and I am going tomorrow to give notes on a rough cut of an upcoming one called Candygirls*. Naturally, I was drawn to the web medium because it's a relatively fast, easy, and cheap way to tell your stories without worrying about a studio or network intervening and saying you can't do something or need to adjust something else for a sponsor or Standards and Practices. In the words of Jason Sklar who has a new web series called Held Up coming soon and also being turned into a feature film: "Create, don't wait!" Sitting around hoping for a green light will only allow chances to pass you by!
Of course, though, working in a smaller medium could also mean smaller budgets and a smaller response. After all, many web series, at least in the beginning are financed by the writers and directors as a way of showcasing what they can do. That's what Jesse Warren and Mark Gantt from The Bannen Way did. "We financed the first two episodes ourselves," Gantt shared. "They were about fifteen or twenty [thousand] and then we took it to the studio."
The reason Warren wanted to do it that way rather than just spread that amount over the full season of the web series, relying on favors from friends and deferred pay for talent and crew, was because he didn't want to sacrifice too much. "Sometimes when you don't have as much money [as a studio would], you have to compromise in certain areas," he knows.
And The Bannen Way was too high concept to skimp on certain elements. The series was shot extremely cinematically and features high-end cars, wardrobe, and sunglasses. The guys were detailed and precise when it came to such (usually expensive) items because they knew that was what would hook their target audience. They literally cold called Jaguar in order to get a donated picture vehicle to use over a four day shoot. "I was in contact with the Maxim people to try to get some of the hometown hotties," Gantt adds. "Just all of the things that guys eighteen to thirty-five want to see: money, cars, hot women, cool sunglasses."
They didn't end up getting the Maxim girls but their cast of name television actresses let little to be desired anyway. And the reason they got all they did was not only because their product was marketable, which is a big thing for the web, which generates its revenue from advertising and sponsorships, but also because the initial pitch looked good on it's own.
Randy Sklar elaborates that the key to shooting something yourself only to pitch it to a larger conglomerate is to "make it look as good as possible. Don't go in there with something and say 'Oh, it would look better if we had more money.' No one wants to see something that isn't the best it can be."
So where does that leave you if you're like me and have ideas that you think are unique and interesting and at times even funny but you don't have the spare cash to get even the ball rolling on the idea to show to a bigger company or sponsor? Well, Warren suggests doing all of the other legwork to show that you have clearly thought out the idea and have a clear plan for it, in addition to an understanding of the business side of things and the new medium. Then you can pitch companies or individuals as backers.
"I'm pitching a feature right now," Warren says, "and I'm approaching it the same way. I'm creating this whole online campaign that will lead up to the premiere of the film next year. I'm doing a website and even mocking up a poster."
"But you don't want to give away all of your ideas!" Randy Sklar laughs.
Of course not, because you don't want them to say 'Hey, that's a good idea, but what do we need this nobody for?' and then go out and do things on their own. It's about balance and being comfortable enough to think outside of the box and wear many hats, on the creative and the business sides.
Where your series should be hosted is another issue many overlook. Sure, you just throw it up on a free, user-generated content site like YouTube, but that is such a vast sea of randomness that even the most interesting and unique projects might get lost. Hosting it on a site designed just for that project is another idea, but how will people know it's there? The consensus seems to be that one should do both of the above and try to get it on a site that specializes in whatever niche into which the project falls. For the Sklar Brothers, that site has been My Damn Channel, which hosted their Back on Topps web show and helped them get over three million hits because it's a site that specializes in like-minded humor.
The bottom line is, as a web series creator you have to do a lot of research. It is not the place to be if you just want to get rich quick. But if you are compelled to tell a story and don't mind a little hard work and elbow grease, it can be more rewarding than any of the other medium because the response will be instantaneous through track backs and hit monitoring and social media sharing. And for people like me who are just a little bit OCD about (and actually relish in) overseeing all of the elements of a project, working within this medium is absolutely the perfect place to be!
*If you would like more information on Candygirls, feel free to contact me for press releases and reviewer copies.